Africa’s mo­ment to lead on cli­mate

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY KOFI AN­NAN AND ROBERT E. RU­BIN Kofi An­nan, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the United Na­tions from 1997 to 2006, is chair of the Africa Progress Panel. Robert E. Ru­bin, U.S. trea­sury sec­re­tary from 1995 to 1999, is a mem­ber of the panel.

Cli­mate change is the great­est threat fac­ing hu­man­ity to­day. To avoid catas­tro­phe, we must dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the car­bon in­ten­sity of our mod­ern energy sys­tems, which have set us on a col­li­sion course with our plan­e­tary bound­aries. This is the chal­lenge lead­ing up to three key in­ter­na­tional events this year: a July sum­mit on fi­nanc­ing for new global de­vel­op­ment goals, another in Septem­ber to set­tle on those goals and — cru­cially— a global meet­ing in De­cem­ber to frame an agree­ment, and set mean­ing­ful tar­gets, on cli­mate change. But fo­cus­ing on am­bi­tious global cli­mate goals can mask the ex­is­tence of real im­pacts on the ground. Nowhere is this truer than in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa.

No re­gion has done less to cause cli­mate change, yet sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing some of the ear­li­est, most se­vere and most dam­ag­ing ef­fects. As a re­sult, Africa’s lead­ers have ev­ery rea­son to sup­port in­ter­na­tional ef­forts to ad­dress cli­mate change. But these lead­ers also have to deal ur­gently with the dis­turb­ing re­al­ity be­hind Africa’s tiny car­bon foot­print: a crush­ing lack of mod­ern energy.

Africa’s energy gap is con­sid­er­able. The av­er­age Amer­i­can uses 10,900 kilo­watt hours of elec­tric­ity a year; the av­er­age sub-Sa­ha­ran African, just 500. And be­hind the av­er­age con­sump­tion fig­ures lies an even starker re­al­ity. Two out of three sub-Sa­ha­ran Africans — 600 mil­lion peo­ple — have no ac­cess to elec­tric­ity at all.

Cut off from the grid, the world’s poor­est peo­ple also pay the world’s high­est power prices, as they de­pend for light­ing on costly, in­ef­fi­cient kerosene. Some­one in a ru­ral vil­lage in north­ern Nige­ria spends 60 to 80 times more per unit of energy than a res­i­dent of New York.

This glar­ing energy gap de­mands at­ten­tion. Africa’s lead­ers have no choice but to act: At stake are the chances of mil­lions of ever es­cap­ing the poverty trap.

These lead­ers have a choice, though, about how to bridge the energy gap. They have an amaz­ing op­por­tu­nity, in fact, to show the rest of the world the way to a sus­tain­able fu­ture.

As is demon­strated in the re­cently pub­lished Africa Progress Re­port 2015, the flag­ship pub­li­ca­tion of the 10-mem­ber Africa Progress Panel, on which we both serve, Africa can break the link be­tween energy and emis­sions by leap-frog­ging over the dam­ag­ing, car­bon-in­ten­sive energy prac­tices that have brought the world to the brink of catas­tro­phe.

Africa’s energy chal­lenges are im­mense. Energy sec­tor bot­tle­necks and power short­ages cost the re­gion 2 per­cent to 4 per­cent of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct an­nu­ally, un­der­min­ing ef­forts to pro­mote sus­tain­able eco­nomic growth, cre­ate jobs, re­duce poverty and boost in­vest­ment. The prob­lems serve to deepen the disad­van­tage ex­pe­ri­enced by the poor, women and those who live in ru­ral ar­eas.

But once strong global de­vel­op­ment goals are in place, backed by smart fi­nanc­ing and a fair cli­mate deal, Africa will be po­si­tioned to turn that sit­u­a­tion up­side down.

Switch­ing to low-car­bon energy strate­gies im­me­di­ately isn’t pos­si­ble be­cause do­ing so could un­der­mine eco­nomic progress. But Africa has enor­mous po­ten­tial for cleaner energy — hy­dro, so­lar, wind and geo­ther­mal power, as well as nat­u­ral gas. Un­lock­ing Africa’s clean energy po­ten­tial can drive growth and cre­ate jobs. Africa can grow and show the way for the rest of the world by grad­u­ally re­plac­ing fos­sil fu­els with re­new­able sources and em­brac­ing a ju­di­cious, dy­namic energy mix.

For that to hap­pen, though, Africa’s lead­ers must seize the cli­mate mo­ment.

For too long, Africa’s lead­ers have been con­tent to over­see highly cen­tral­ized energy sys­tems that ben­e­fit the rich and by­pass many of the poor. Power util­i­ties have been cen­ters of cor­rup­tion. The time has come to re­vamp Africa’s creak­ing energy in­fra­struc­ture, while rid­ing the wave of low-car­bon in­no­va­tion that is trans­form­ing energy sys­tems around the world.

Ac­tions taken by African lead­ers are es­sen­tial. So is in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion.

The 2015 de­vel­op­ment and cli­mate sum­mits pro­vide plat­forms for deep­en­ing in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and pro­vid­ing a down pay­ment on mea­sures with the po­ten­tial to put Africa on a path to­ward an in­clu­sive, low-car­bon energy fu­ture — and the world on a path to avoid cli­mate catas­tro­phe.

Un­lock­ing Africa’s energy po­ten­tial and putting in place the foun­da­tion for a cli­mate-re­silient, low-car­bon fu­ture will re­quire am­bi­tious, ef­fi­cient and prop­erly fi­nanced mul­ti­lat­eral co­op­er­a­tion. As we show in our re­port, the cur­rent global cli­mate fi­nance ar­chi­tec­ture fails these tests.

In par­tic­u­lar, we strongly urge gov­ern­ments in the ma­jor emit­ting coun­tries to act now by end­ing the bil­lions they spend to sub­si­dize fos­sil fuel ex­plo­ration, a pol­icy that en­cour­ages greater car­bon emis­sions, not fewer. In­stead of sub­si­diz­ing emis­sions, de­vel­oped coun­tries need to ac­cu­rately price them, through car­bon taxes or other means. These two pol­icy shifts, com­bined with strong de­vel­op­ment goals in low-emit­ting coun­tries in Africa, would go a long way to­ward lev­el­ing the global cli­mate play­ing field.

Fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will surely judge these lead­ers not by prin­ci­ples they set out in com­mu­niqués but by the ac­tions they took to erad­i­cate poverty, build shared pros­per­ity and pro­tect our chil­dren’s chil­dren from cli­mate dis­as­ter. The global cli­mate mo­ment can be Africa’s mo­ment to lead the world.

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